When Horses Break Their Legs
It wasn't that long ago that if a horse broke a leg, euthanasia was the only course of action. Breaks are most commonly heard of in race horses, but riding horses, and even backyard 'pasture ornaments' who do nothing but loaf around the field can break a bone in their leg. All it takes is one miss-step or slip. While euthanasia is often still the only option, advances in veterinary technologies and techniques mean some horses can be saved, and may even be able to return to their work in some capacity. Saving every horse with a fracture is still a long way off, and here is why.
If you break a leg, it may mean, in the worst of cases, surgery to place pins to hold the bones, a cast and weeks or months of allowing the bone to heal. Our bodies are relatively light compared to a horse's and our leg bones are larger in ratio to a horse's. We also know that we must stay off of the injured leg, so that the bones mend properly without stressing or damaging the healing bone. Most people, no matter how complicated their fracture, will probably survive their fracture, unless there is some sort of unusual complication.
Difficult Bones to Fix
Horses, however, have heavy bodies and light leg bones. This is the way we've developed many breeds, especially Thoroughbreds. When bones break, it often means they shatter. And it's almost impossible to reconstruct the fractured leg. While you have some large muscles and a bit of tissue below the knee that helps stabilize a broken bone, along with your cast, a horse has no muscle, or any other tissue besides tendons and ligaments below the knee.
The lack of muscle and other tissue means, even with a cast, the broken bone has little to support it. And, it's much harder to keep a horse from using its broken leg to bear weight.. Horses stand most of the time, and they are creatures of flight. That means a horse is likely to instinctively flee when it's startled, instead of reasoning that it must keep weight off of its fractured leg. The chances of re-injury are high.
Horses put a huge amount of stress on their legs, especially when galloping and jumping. And, there are many fragile bones below the knee and hock. Some of the bones are within the hoof, and when they shatter, they are far more difficult to stabilize and let heal. Over half of the horse's weight is borne on the front legs, so those bones and joints, in particular, take a lot of abuse. Even if a horse's bones are healing, other complications can set in, such as static laminitis, making it difficult for the horse to fully recover without living a life of unsoundness and pain.
Fractures That Can and Can’t Be Repaired
The less complicated the fracture, the more likely the horse will recover. Greenstick and stress fractures are incomplete fractures, and these can be treated successfully. Simple fractures, where there is one clean break, are more likely to heal successfully than shattered bones. Compound fractures, where broken bone penetrates through the skin, is less likely to repair, and in many cases result in euthanasia. Fractures that involve the joints such as pasterns are often irreparable. Fractures that happen above the knee are also difficult to repair.
If Your Horse Breaks a Leg
A horse that has fractured a leg will be in obvious distress. They will not want to bear weight on the leg and there will be swelling. The leg can hang crookedly, or a bone may appear to be coming through the skin.
First aid includes applying a bandage against the skin and stabilizing the leg with a stiff material such as wood or plastic pipe over the bandage. Splints have to be put on the front and back of the leg, not on each side. As soon as possible, have a veterinarian examine the horse. Further movement can mean the horse can cause additional injury to itself, so the horse must be kept as still as possible. If the veterinarian determines the fracture can be repaired, the horse may be transported to a veterinary hospital.
When There’s No Choice
It's important to remember that when you hear of a horse breaking its leg, that its owner wasn't just giving up because the treatment was too expensive. Many horse owners, such as those who owned Barbaro and Eight Belles had the means and will to save their horses if it were possible. A horse like Barbaro would have continued his career as a prized breeding stallion if he had survived. The decision to euthanize horses isn't always about money, but the chance that re-injury and months of painful and mentally stressful treatment and rehabilitation might only lead to a life of chronic pain.
- Equine Fractures: Improving the Chances for a Successful Outcome from the School of Veterinary Medicine • University of California, Davis
- Fracture Repair by Dr. Dwight Bennet, AAEP
- Fractures by Keenan McAlister Equine – PDF